Writing Tip: Using Mental, Emotional, and Physical Reactions to Improve Your Writing

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I’ve been pondering a concept in writing lately, and that’s the importance of reactions.

I know it’s essential for characters to make choices and have motivations in every scene. That gives the story a sense of urgency and purpose. But this morning I’ve been working on something different in my WIP. Reactions. I personally think every scene should have three reactions:

  1. Mental
  2. Emotional 
  3. Physical

Mental and emotional might seem like the same thing at first — especially if you’re a man. But if you’re a woman, you know they’re not. Women can easily be thinking one thing, and suddenly break out crying for no known reason. Maybe men can, too, and they just hide it better. :)

To me, a mental response involves the logic aspect of the brain, and as we all know, the logical often wars with the emotional side of us. Unless we’re Spock. Or Mr. Data. (Gotta love Star Trek.)

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And the physical responses should involve the five senses. In my opinion, mental, emotional, and physical responses are key in showing, not telling your story.

So how does this work?

Each scene, something happens to your character–or if not, it should be. So ask yourself:

  • How does this affect my character mentally, emotionally, or physically?

Let me demonstrate. I’ll even demonstrate with a man, since I still think women are easier to peg emotionally.

If your character is thrown from a horse and twists his ankle, instead of saying, Jeremy sat on the ground, hurt and angry at himself, you can say:

1. I’m such an idiot! I’m such a stupid dolt! I knew that #&!@ horse was gonna throw me. I knew it the second I saw him! Why couldn’t I have held on two seconds longer? Or got my foot in the stirrup! I’m such a freaking idiot! (Mental reaction–or the logical aspect. Yes, there is some emotion in there, but he’s logically trying to figure out how he ended up on his backside.)

2. And he threw me in front of Elizabeth?! I’m never going to live this down. She’s never going to talk to me again. Stupid #&!@ horse! (Emotional reaction–embarrassment. Anger, too. Maybe even a hint of a crush going on.)

3. I try to stand. Pain explodes in my ankle. I stifle a groan and swear again. I look around. The fence is a couple feet behind me, but if Elizabeth sees me use it to stand up, I’ll lose all manhood. Gritting my teeth, I wipe my raw hands on my jeans, and push myself to standing. My legs shake; they hate me as much as I hate the horse. It takes every ounce of energy not to limp out of the corral. (Physical response)

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Or here’s a simple example.

Pretend that after Jeremy masters the horse-riding, he is riding through a dark, scary forest. Don’t just tell me, “Jeremy rode through a dark, scary forest.” Show me.

1. The wall of trees stretches up on both sides of me. The sun is lost in their shadows, making it feel much later in the day than it is. I know if there was more sun, I would find the scenery beautiful. But I can’t. I don’t. (Mental/Logical response)

2. The trees crowd in around me. They’re hiding something, I can feel it. What though? Or are they the secret themselves? It seems their dark, gnarled branches could reach out and grab me at any moment. (Emotional response–fear)

3. My eyes struggle to adjust to the lack of sun. It is cool in the forest, yet my forehead breaks out in a sweat. The woods are too silent. Too quiet. I’m a dead man. (Physical response–notice the different senses there?)

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Or here’s a last example, this time from Elizabeth’s POV. If Jeremy unexpectedly kisses her at the end of the story, you can say Elizabeth was surprised, even really, really, really surprised. Or . . . you can show her three reactions and let the readers figure it out for themselves:

1. I stare at Jeremy in shock. He’s never looked at me twice before. Where did this kiss come from? Did he hear me talking to Mary about my crush on him? Does he just feel guilty? (She’s mentally trying to figure him out)

2. I study his blue eyes, his dark hair. He’s not smiling. Why isn’t he smiling? “Don’t say it was a mistake!” I beg him silently. “Don’t tell me you are sorry. In fact, kiss me again!” (Emotional reaction.)

3. My lips are still warm, my cheeks are flushed. My heart is pounding so loudly I’m sure he can hear it. (Physical reaction)

 

Those are just a few quick examples — and not even that in depth or brilliant. The beauty, though, is all three reactions in all three examples can be thrown together exactly as written. Or if you want to move it around slightly, you can to help with the flow.

I stare at Jeremy in shock. He’s never looked at me twice before. Where did this kiss come from? Did he hear me talking to Mary about my crush on him? Does he just feel guilty? I study his blue eyes, his dark hair. He’s not smiling. Why isn’t he smiling? My lips are still warm, my cheeks are flushed. My heart is pounding so loudly I’m sure he can hear it. 

“Don’t say it was a mistake!” I beg him silently. “Don’t tell me you are sorry. In fact, kiss me again!” 

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The more I delve into my characters’ mental, emotional, and physical reactions, the more the scenes come alive.

At the same time, I am sure there’s a point of over-doing it. I can’t imagine writing about Jeremy’s reaction to seeing a McDonald’s down the street unless it’s going to affect his decisions, and thus the story. It could easily slow the narrative. So use this tip with caution. I think. Right?

What do you guys think? How do you use mental, emotional, and physical reactions to show your story? Is there a point of overdoing it? 

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Author: Rebecca Belliston @rlbelliston

Hopeless romantic and author of CITIZENS OF LOGAN POND, SADIE and AUGUSTINA. Music nerd and composer of RELIGIOUS and CLASSICAL-STYLE music. I live in Michigan with my husband and five kids.

4 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Using Mental, Emotional, and Physical Reactions to Improve Your Writing”

  1. Love your examples! Using all 3 responses really did bring those scenes alive. I never thought of separating mental and emotional, but they are quite different when I read your examples.

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    1. Thanks. I’ve definitely been giving it a lot of thought this week. It’s crazy how tweaking a few things can change the intensity of a scene. I know for me personally, my mental and emotional reactions are often very different. :)

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  2. I really like the way you broke it all down, and then the way they combined together to make the final paragraph. Not gonna lie, I kind of want to know what happens next with Jeremy. ;-)

    Like

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